I’m republishing this short story in two parts to commemorate the death of a good friend two years ago – the event that inspired it. She was a sceptic about the afterlife!
Dorothy stared at the piles of paper on his desk. The magnolia just beginning to blossom outside the window proved that it was spring, but this was not the spring clean she had planned. It wasn’t his fault that the desk was covered in notebooks, newspaper cuttings, envelopes, scribbled sheets of A4, and bits of card in various colours. That was her doing.
She had known since the funeral that she would have to clear out his study at some point, but had put it off all winter. The short dark days had made it seem too difficult to tackle such a painful task.
She’d shipped his clothes to the Oxfam shop. He’d never been attached to them and nor was she, but this was different. His study held the heartbeat of his life’s work. She couldn’t face the bookshelves yet, nor the filing cabinet with all his journals in, so she’d attacked his desk with all the venom of her grief. Every heavy drawer was heaved out of its slot and dumped onto the rust-red leather surface until there was no more room.
The mounds reached almost to her chest. Scribbled scraps had fallen onto the carpet. No longer able to stand she sank into his chair just as the tears began once more to slide their customary path down along her cheeks.
Surely this would have to wait until another day. She was just about to get up and leave when her eyes fell on an envelope, originally at the bottom of a drawer but now at the top of the last hoard she had thrown onto the heap.
It had her name on it.
Hesitantly she pulled it towards her. The envelope felt thick and stiff, as though it held a card for her to read. Memories of anniversaries flooded back, of other cards in better days, in Paris in the Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa, beneath the Orloj in Prague’s Old Town Square, in Amsterdam with Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum.
With misty eyes, she groped into the top left hand drawer – not one she’d emptied yet as she knew that all it contained were such things as staplers, pens, rulers, scissors and sellotape. And the brass letter opener she needed was there somewhere. Her hand finally detected it.
She slit open the envelope.
Sure enough, a card, with van Gogh’s sunflowers on the front.
“My dearest Dorothy,” it read, “I should have put this somewhere more obvious but I thought it was best to make this task as difficult as I could for obvious reasons. I have given a packet for John to keep until you ask him for it. I am requesting you not to do so until I enter your dreams twice, on two separate nights, and tell you what the packet contains. There is one thing inside that I only want you to find after you have seen me twice in a dream and I have told you what the envelope contains. You must tell John what is inside the envelope before you open it in his presence. In that way we will make it as certain as possible that, if you are right, my continuing life after death is confirmed at least for the two of you, the most important people in my life. Of course, if you are wrong, while it will not prove that my mind is still alive, as I sincerely hope it is at the time that you read this, it does not prove the opposite either. Whichever way this goes, please remember that in this life at least I have loved you more than any other person, place or thing.
“With deepest love, Alistair.”
She could hold back the sobs no longer as her mind carried her back to the late winter morning just over a year ago, after the surgeon had confirmed there was nothing more they could do. Alistair had sat where she sat now, as she stood in the doorway watching him, a steaming cup of coffee in her hand. They had just got up and the heating was only just beginning to loosen the grip of a frosty night.
He had explained to her, with a wide grin on his face, his latest plan.
‘Jesus!’ she spluttered in her drink, ‘You’ve got to be bloody joking.’
‘Why? It’d be a great experiment. If I did come back you’d be so comforted.’
‘But what if you didn’t?’
‘Well, you’d be no worse off than if we didn’t work this plan.’
. . . . . . . . .
John was just biting into a wholemeal biscuit when his mobile rang. It was Dorothy. For a moment he was tempted to ignore it but relented. She didn’t ring often after all.
‘’Hi, Dorothy. How goes?’
‘D’you know what I’ve found,’ she burst out loudly at high speed.
‘Tell me,’ he responded wearily.
‘The card,’ she shouted. ‘The one telling me about the packet Alistair left with you.’
He paused. He’d been dreading this moment.
Not only did he feel guilty that he hadn’t given Dorothy more time and support in these difficult days, but he regarded the whole ‘experiment’ Alistair had set up as a complete waste of time. He’d always known of his dead friend’s obsession with the possibility of the afterlife. They’d had many a conversation in which he’d tried to bring him back to his senses. Nothing had worked. And now he resented the way his friend had dragged him into this pointless charade. It was not only embarrassing but would probably leave Dorothy feeling even more hurt and let down than ever. And he would have to deal with all this.
‘I know the one you mean. Do you really feel we need to go through with this? It’ll drag on for ages and slow down any chance you have of grieving properly and moving on.’
‘Of course we have to go through with it,’ she snapped. ‘He wanted it and it’s what I want as well.’
‘But it’ll only lead to disappointment . . . . ,’ he began.
‘You don’t know that. You believe whatever you want. Believe in nothing for all I care. But I believe something else is possible and this may be the only chance I ever get of proving it to myself at least.’ She stopped. ‘Maybe it’ll change your mind as well.’
‘Fat chance,’ he thought but said nothing.
‘What is it that you want me to do?’
. . . . . . . . .
Dorothy sat at the garden table in the late afternoon sun. Its light scattered off the dimpled glass in snaking patterns. She knew John wasn’t happy to continue with this plan but she was grateful that, out of loyalty to Alistair probably, he was on board with it at least for the time being.
The next big problem was her dreams. She never remembered any. Alistair had banged on endlessly about how everyone dreams, and about how important they were as messengers from ‘the subliminal mind.’ How irritating all that psychobabble was while he was still alive and how much she missed it now.
On the table was a book about dreaming. It was one he had recommended to her many times over the years. She’d always refused to go near it. Well, he’d won the battle in the end. She picked it up and began to read, skimming past the early chapters trying to find where this wonderful advice was about capturing the dreams she felt she never had. Ah, got it. She read more carefully. She had to prime her mind before sleep and ask to be given dreams. Then, if she woke and remembered even the faintest fragment of a dream, she must catch it and write it down even in the middle of the night.
It all seemed a bit mad to her. Was this his way of getting her to do now he was dead, what he could never persuade her to consider while he was alive? Perhaps it wasn’t about proving his mind lived on at all. Perhaps he believed that tuning into her dreams would help her with her grief and the rest of her life without him. Should she ring John and tell him to call it off?
She remembered that Alistair was not a trickster. He didn’t play those kinds of mind games. He was obsessed with near-death experiences and bored you almost to death endlessly explaining them. He almost certainly did want to test this theory out. Maybe he wanted her to value her dreams as well but definitely not instead.
She read on.
That night she placed a pad and pencil next to the bed. She decided to leave the light on as well. Her sleep would be more broken, which might help, and she wouldn’t have to grope for the pencil and risk losing the dream.
This became her nightly ritual for weeks. She faithfully recorded what she could remember of her dreams.
At first mere wisps of smoke with no sign of the fire.
She was on a green train going somewhere. She was trying to make a phone call but the screen of her mobile didn’t work. She was in a meeting with a report to make but she had left her draft at home. She is at the window of a house on fire, helping people to escape.
Slowly, over time the dreams became more detailed and more weird.
She was in what seemed to be a church, sitting on the kind of shiny reddish-brown wooden bench that usually constitutes a pew. There were quite a few people around. Across an aisle there was a bench or barrier with some kind of platform in front of it. It didn’t look like those tombstones found in a church but it was about the same height. There were several people in front of it watching some kind of mythical creature pacing up-and-down, perhaps even dancing. It was of medium height and possibly had wings. A girl, with a bow and arrow in her hands, clearly felt the creature was dangerous and she had to kill it before it harmed someone. She loved the creature dearly and really didn’t want to kill it. She went close to the platform and shot it with an arrow. She had to go so close so as to be sure to kill the creature and not hurt someone else. Dorothy burst out sobbing. She was so intensely sad. She felt embarrassed and, looking round, was relieved to see a skinny girl to her left also holding back her tears on the same bench.
After this dream she woke up feeling something really significant had happened. She didn’t know quite how to go about decoding it. There were tinges of the Cupid legend and ideas of love. There was grief there, and death. Also there was religion with all that implied about faith and the afterlife. She wondered if it meant that she was getting closer to a meeting with Alistair in a dream. She didn’t know who the other girl was – her younger self perhaps?
The following week there was a longer dream.
Dorothy is wandering around a vast campus. The experience is like a fusion of starting university and being at a conference. One moment she is stepping between people sitting on the central steps of a massive auditorium, as she strides down towards the stage to give a talk. Next she is opening doors off corridors into what should be laboratories, lecture halls or seminar rooms, to find people asleep in them in the daytime. She feels they must have travelled vast distances to get here and are jet lagged. Then she is striding long pathways in flat blank spaces outside completely alone and talking to herself. She is feeling really strange and tense. She seems to know no one.
It’s coming up to 5 p.m. She decides to ring home and gets her mobile out. It’s useless. It’s all in Greek. There is a pretty scene of some ancient building depicted on the screen. There is no address book and no way to ring numbers. She is desperate to make the phone call. Her battery is going flat – it’s showing 19% and she doesn’t have her portable charger with her. She finds a group of red phone boxes near something like a factory and goes into one with her change in her hand but can’t understand the slots for the coins. They seem to be specialised for factory-made discs to go into. Then the phone in her booth rings. She hesitates, then picks it up.
‘Hallo,’ she whispers.
‘Hi, love, it’s Alistair.’
Her heart leaps. She can hardly speak.
‘You’ve done it. You’ve come into my dream.’
‘Listen, love. I haven’t got much time. I’m not meant to ring you yet. In the packet is a book – the Everyman edition of George Herbert’s . . . . .’
The phone went dead.
(Part 2: Thursday)
 This was begun after we attended the funeral of a close friend. She was a complete sceptic so in a way this is written partly from her point of view.